The University of Pennsylvania chapter of J Street, the liberal Zionist organization, sponsored an appearance by Breaking the Silence, the Israeli dissident veterans group, at the school’s Hillel two nights back. That’s good news.
Ahead of the event, the J Street executive committee published an article in the school paper describing the five-month delay in scheduling the event due to pushback from the organized Jewish community in Philadelphia. The J Streeters were determined to have the event at the school Hillel and lobbied to achieve that end. And now they hail their ability to stage the event as a prospective victory for the two-state solution.
It is interesting that the J Street chapter’s definition of “free speech” about Israel is confined to speech “rooted in love.” No code of open debate that I have ever participated in included that requirement! But the requirement shows how helpless the organized Jewish community is as presently constituted to reflect the views of, say, young Jews who advocate for the right of return for Palestinians, or who don’t believe in the need for a Jewish state, or who reject the idea of dialogue as a means of resolving the conflict. J Street cherishes dialogue as the answer. But how far would dialogue have gotten the Freedom Riders in the segregated south? Would dialogue have moved the slave-owners of Virginia? What is needed is pressure.
Part of the account, from the Daily Pennsylvanian:
As we were planning our event in early October, we were informed that the HGP [Hillel of Greater Philadelphia] board would not allow us to hold an event with Breaking the Silence in the Hillel building. A few board members apparently believed that the testimony of IDF soldiers was somehow “anti-Israel” or not suitable for an audience among Penn’s Jewish community. Dismayed and confused, we decided to postpone the event. It was important to us to fully hear out any objections, defend our mission and the speaker to the board and ensure that the event would eventually be held in Hillel, Penn’s center of Jewish life.
When little progress had been made by January, we decided to turn to our Hillel student leadership for support. We drafted a letter expressing why we felt it was important to bring Breaking the Silence to Hillel and invited them to sign a petition arguing for our right to do so. Those who signed did not necessarily do so because they agreed with the message of Breaking the Silence (many did not) but because they supported open and vigorous conversation within the Jewish community.
In all, we collected 27 signatures of Penn Hillel student leaders spanning a broad range of Jewish denominational affiliations, political views on Israel and types of involvement in the Jewish community. These signatures, including those from leaders of other pro-Israel organizations at Penn, finally pushed the HGP board to recognize that the Jewish student community is much too strong to succumb to a fear of ideas. We are ready to demand free speech in our building and to engage in challenging conversations about Israel. Indeed, open discourse and constructive criticism, rooted in love, are the only ways for us to achieve a brighter and safer future for the State of Israel. Like similar events being held by J Street U chapters on campuses across the country, our success in bringing Breaking the Silence to Hillel exemplifies the gradual mending of a still broken dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As far as the board of J Street U Penn is concerned, the most important thing about this event is the discussion that will follow. We encourage students of all political persuasions and religious beliefs, Jewish or not, to come and engage with us tonight at Hillel. Join us in exploring and debating one of the most hotly contested and geopolitically important issues of our time. It is our firm belief that nothing will change in the region without strong American investment in and support for peace and a two-state solution.